Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Google says it may leave China

Internet search giant Google says it may end its operations in China after hackers targeted the e-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. The company said it had found a "sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China". Although it did not directly accuse China's government, Google said it was no longer willing to censor its Chinese site's results, as the required by China's one party state. The decision may mean Google will be forced to shut the site which was established in 2006.

Shares fall on news

Shares in the company fell after Google published the news on its official blog, dropping 1.9% in New York in the hours following the announcement. The value of Google sticks dropped to $590 though a fall in share value was already being seen since 5th January when shares were $623. The news also created a stir in Washington with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying Google's allegations "raise very serious concerns and questions". She said the US would seek an explanation from China, concerning the hacking attempts. "The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy," Clinton said. "I will be giving an address next week on the centrality of Internet freedom in the 21st century, and we will have further comment on this matter as the facts become clear."

Google statement

Google said that hackers targeted not only its own site, but also those of other large companies. "A wide range of businesses, including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors, have been similarly targeted," Google said on its blog.

"These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered, combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web, have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China," Google said, "We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all."

David Drummond, Google's Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer, said that the decision to review business operations in China had been incredibly hard, and that it would have potentially far-reaching consequences. "We want to make clear that this move was driven by our executives in the United States." Drummond said. He also acknowledged the hard work put in by employees who had helped make the Chinese version of the site the "success it is today." 

"We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China," Drummond said. Nonetheless he acknowledged China's achievements. "China's economic reform programs and its citizens' entrepreneurial flair have lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty," he said, "Indeed, this great nation is at the heart of much economic progress and development in the world today."

The recent attacks were for the most part unsuccessful, Google says. "Based on our investigation ... only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves," Google said. The company also advised people to increase their security approach to the way they use computers and the Internet.

"In terms of individual users, we would advise people to deploy reputable anti-virus and anti-spyware programs on their computers, to install patches for their operating systems and to update their web browsers. Always be cautious when clicking on links appearing in instant messages and emails, or when asked to share personal information like passwords online," the company said. Google also said it had enhanced its own security following the hacking attempts. "We have already used information gained from this attack to make infrastructure and architectural improvements that enhance security for Google and for our users."

Google in China

Rumours about Google's potential departure have been floating around for some time. Departure of Google China's chief Kaifu Lee was seen as a particular turning point and prompted many to suggest Google may withdraw from China. Lee's departure in September came after months of difficulties faced by the search giant in China. Speaking at the time, Isaac Mao, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said, "Lee has faced a lot of pressure from the government, which has really stepped up its censorship efforts, so his departure may be a relief for him personally." He said that, "Google has been too compliant to the Chinese government, and modeling Baidu too closely. It should be more independent-minded and less concerned with short-term results." 

In June last year Google suspended its "Suggest" search prompt feature on its Chinese site after the local-language service was criticized by the government for providing links to pornographic material. China also adopted "punitive measures" against the company's international site, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on June 25, as the service became inaccessible to Chinese Web users for hours.

Since then Google's services have been subject of further restrictions. As of January this year many Google services still remain blocked. Blogger, YouTube, Picasa web, Google Health, Google Sites, Google Groups, Google's Development site,, the Chrome Extensions site and even the Google Wave invite link are all inaccessible. Google Docs is only accessible via the insecure http mode and even then it is unstable with spreadsheets blocked and direct access to folders and other functionality thwarted. 

Google Wave is also virtually useless in China with many gadgets blocked making it nothing more than a glorified instant messenger! Even when Google sites are not blocked they are often unstable. Google News is one such example. Links may not open the first time round and some links are preceded by a Google referrer which has to be deleted in order to open the required site. Image searches are also highly restricted with many pictures replaced by place-markers instead of the actual photograph.

Reaction & comments

Google's leaving China may make little difference to many Internet users given that only Gmail and its search engine are the only stable sites working in China. However as one writer suggests in the Daily Telegraph, the decision may rattle a few cages. "When Barack Obama, the most powerful man on the planet, made his maiden visit to China and espoused the 'universal' values of freedom of speech, he was humiliatingly ignored by President Hu Jintao," Malcolm Moore writes, "Ignoring Google's stand against Chinese Internet censorship and dirty tricks, will be much more difficult." 

Google, by this announcement, has put global debate about freedom of speech to the forefront. While the Chinese government "may be happy to do without Google and its corporate high-mindedness and to rely on its technologically-inferior homegrown service Baidu" the "sudden departure of Google would raise awkward questions in the minds of China's 350m Internet users, many of whom remain ignorant of the true extent of the government's censorship machine."

Google was widely criticised when it set up The move was seen as turning away from its motto "Don't be Evil". The latest news shifts the moral ground in its favour. Moore writes, "Google's announcement forces us to confront the core question of whether China can take its place on the world stage without recognizing the 'universal values' of freedom of speech and information that it so openly rejects."
Already many human rights organisations are praising the stance of the Internet company. "Google has taken a bold and difficult step for Internet freedom in support of fundamental human rights," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology. "No company should be forced to operate under government threat to its core values or to the rights and safety of its users. We support Google for being willing to engage in this very difficult process."

"This is a very big step that Google is taking, that is to make public these kinds of cyber attacks," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights In China. Such attacks, she said, are not news to the the human rights communities and NGOs, which have long been targeted with phishing, malware, and denial of service attacks. "For Google to make public what they have discovered is highly significant," she added. "It's a wake up call to the international business community about the real risks of operating in China."

There have been mixed views expressed in China. Comments left on forums have praised and criticised Google. Some reports say people were delivering flowers to the Google headquarters in west Beijing.

The news has yet to be reported by Xinhua or other state news organ. It has also been pushed to the background by the developing tragedy in Haiti where a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck at 16:53 local time [21:52 GMT]. [Further reports: BBC / CNN / Guardian / Telegraph / Google blog]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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